The English armourers of the 15th century were great craftsmen, artists, and innovators. That is the essential conclusion of Tobias Capwell’s monumental study of the armour of the English knight in this period.
It was once assumed that the domestic industry was modest and merely imitative in comparison with those of Italy, Germany, Flanders, and France. No more. In this second volume of his planned trilogy, Capwell has confirmed the extraordinary dynamism of English work.
The floruit of the English style, he argues, was c.1465-1485, under the Yorkist kings, when it reached its idiosyncratic extreme, its vegetal, organic forms in full bloom, its wearers assuming the appearance almost of ‘green men’ rendered in steel, or armoured wild men of the woods, wrapped in vines and roots and wreathed in leaves and flower blossoms. After more than 20 years of research, the author remains unaware of anything remotely like this in any non-English source.
He is referring to the profusion of decorative detail, the winged couters (elbow plates) and poleyns (knee plates), the leaf-like tassets hanging from the skirt, the curling flutes on helmets, cuirasses, vambraces (arm plates), and cuisses and greaves (leg plates). For 15th-century armour was both functional and an art form.
The English turned in on themselves after 1453. The last battle of the Hundred Years War was fought that year. Almost all English territory in France had been lost. The pent-up violence inherent in the feudal order could no longer find expression in foreign wars. Instead, the English nobility engaged in a long series of civil wars – ‘the Wars of the Roses’ – in which rival factions competed for control of the crown, the fount of patronage, with mutually destructive consequences.
This geopolitical reorientation found expression in the development of armour. The English position in Europe shifted from outward-oriented and internationally engaged to an internally focused posture punctuated by periods of intense dynastic warfare. Not surprisingly, this change seems to have driven up the demand for foreign armour within England itself.
This demand was met in part by enterprising Italian and Flemish merchants, who developed a booming export trade, but also by native armourers, who expanded their output and adapted their designs to the demands of English warfare between 1455 and 1485. Needless to say, the surge of foreign imports, especially perhaps the Flemish work, exerted a strong influence on English craftsmen.
Especially remarkable is the pace of innovation. Capwell divides his study into three periods – 1450-1470, 1470-1490, and 1490-1500 – on the basis of the subtle changes in form he has been able to identify. As well as noting the growing artistic elaboration of English armours, he charts functional adaptations arising from design improvements, battlefield experience, and Continental influence.
Body armour reached a peak in this period, providing more comprehensive personal protection than at any other time in military history. But protection by plate and mail came at a cost. Mobility, vision, ventilation, and ability to communicate were all compromised by heavy armour. Experience was forever suggesting new ways to mediate these conflicting demands.
An example is the replacement of the great bascinet of the early 15th century by the sallet and the armet of the late 15th century, a matter Capwell discusses in the first section of the book, where he deals with helmets.
The former provided exceptional protection, but it held the head in a rigid casket of metal. Both the latter types had the huge advantage that separate articulated pieces allowed the head to move. The sallet, for example, comprising helmet and visor, was supplemented by a separate bevor, protecting chin and neck, enabling the head to turn.
The disadvantage, of course, was that every joint and opening was a potential weakness – a slit through which a weapon might penetrate. So head protection continued to evolve as armourers sought ways to increase protection while retaining the flexibility of the sallet and armet.
Especially notable were functional adaptations to fighting on foot. Skirts became longer. Tassets (plates hanging from the skirt) were enlarged but suspended higher up. The whole assemblage was designed to concertina upwards when mounted. Leg armour became fully enclosed. Sabatons (foot armours) were cut lower at the ankle for greater mobility.
All these innovations were in keeping with a distinctively English way of war that had developed during the previous century under Edward III. At Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, the English men-at-arms had fought dismounted, ranged in ‘battles’ (divisions) with wedges of longbowmen in between.
This remained the norm during the Wars of the Roses. Mounted action was limited (though seems to have become more frequent in later campaigns), largely because battles usually took the form of head-on slugging matches, with only minimal attempts at manoeuvre. The inability of cavalry to break solid heavy infantry in frontal collision, combined with the exceptional vulnerability of horses to massed archery, compelled men-at-arms to fight on foot.
Tobias Capwell is the Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection in London. He is a researcher, lecturer, broadcaster, re-enactor, and author of many books, including Masterpieces of European Arms and Armour in the Wallace Collection (2011), Armour of the English Knight, 1400-1450 (2015), and Arms and Armour of the Medieval Joust (2018). He claims to be the world’s only jousting curator, and is certainly one the world’s leading authorities on medieval and Renaissance arms and armour.
This volume is the second of three, the first covering developments in the first half of the 15th century, the planned last to cover imported armours and the growing foreign influence on the domestic tradition (with publication scheduled later this year).
It hardly need be said that these three volumes will become the seminal works on 15th-century English armour, which has never before been treated in such exceptional detail.
Capwell’s primary source material, apart from the armours themselves, has been tomb effigies – many of them late-medieval artistic masterpieces – which often depict armours so precisely that we see the hinges, straps, and laces holding them together.
The effigies have been supplemented with the evidence of funerary ‘achievements’ – items of actual armour placed with the effigy – and with that of tapestries, brasses, stained glass, manuscript illustrations, paintings, drawings, even seals.
This evidence has been organised in a richly detailed typological sequence, with each phase of development broken down into its component parts – cuirass, pauldrons (shoulder plates), vambraces, gauntlets, leg armour, and sabatons.
The text is a concise summary of evidence and form, informed by incisive commentary. What dominates, however, is the graphics. There are numerous reproductions of medieval artworks and many excellent black-and-white drawings of both complete armours and individual pieces. But it is the photography that overwhelms.
This is consistently of the highest quality, a stunning succession of general and close-up views of both armours and effigies. Every statement in the text is substantiated by one or more images, such that even the most obscure points of detail achieve immediate clarification, and the reader emerges with an intimate understanding of form, appearance, purpose, and nomenclature.
Capwell tells us nothing of the armourers and their workshops. There is no reason why he should: it is not his subject in this book. On the other hand, the craftsmen are an inescapable presence throughout. Every page bristles with evidence of their skill and artistry, their technological sophistication, their ingenuity and imagination.
One imagines the medieval world hidebound with custom and tradition, its urban artisans strait-jacketed by guild regulation. Capwell’s study implies the opposite: a radical openness to new ideas and a rapid churn of new designs.
We should not be surprised. The quality of one’s armour, the completeness of protection, the degree to which movement or sensory perception was impeded – these could be matters of life and death on the battlefield.
Let us finish with a tiny example. It can be seen on some surviving armours and on some tomb effigies, but the uninitiated would surely mistake it for a repair or more likely miss it altogether.
On some articulated pauldrons (shoulder protection formed of separate lames or strips of plate) can be seen a narrow strip of raised metal affixed to one of the lames. This was an ‘applied stop-rib’, designed, explains Capwell, ‘to catch the point of an incoming weapon, preventing it from skating up off the pauldron on to the neck or face’.
Reading this sumptuous book, following the author as he drills down into the most intimate details of his subject, it takes only a little imagination to be transported into the maelstrom of close-quarters killing at Towton, Barnet, or Bosworth.
Review by Neil Faulkner
Armour of the English Knight, 1450-1500, Tobias Capwell, Thomas Del Mar, hbk (£69.95), ISBN 978-0993324635.